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Balakrishnan Rajagopal Headshot

Sri Lanka's Continuing Woes

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Sri Lanka's problems may have just multiplied. An ugly electoral competition, shorn of elementary standards that would have made it free or fair, marred by violence, intimidation and repression of the media by the State, has just concluded. Indeed, Sri Lanka again joins the ranks of countries that conduct elections, but have dubious status as real democracies. President Mahinda Rajapakse's win is not something to celebrate. Nor would a win by his opponent, General Fonseka, been. Both showed next to no commitment to bridging Sri Lanka's ethnic divisions, healing its wounds and laying the foundation for real peace and development, as seen in their pre-electoral manifestos.

A major cause of worry is that Fonseka ended up winning most of the Tamil votes that were cast, even amidst the low voter turn out in Tamil areas. This has the potential to deepen the division between the State, tightly controlled by Rajapakse, and the Tamil minority, thus undermining the chance for reconciliation. Rajapakse needs to reassure the Tamil minority and the international community that he intends to meet minimum standards of acceptable conduct and decency in the treatment of the displaced Tamil population, too many of whom still languish in detention, and that he intends to craft and implement policies that protect their human rights, including adequate devolution. A failure to pro-actively tackle the problems of lack of trust among the minority Tamils can be a fatal error when combined with an electoral victory, which has resulted mostly from the votes of the majority Sinhala community.

A second problem is the apparent lack of alternative centers of opposition to Rajapakse. The opposition parties are weak and splintered, the media has faced unprecedented attack in recent years, independent voices of criticism and opposition from civil society have been violently stifled and murdered. It is no exaggeration to say that in the rogues' gallery of human rights violators, Rajapakse's regime ranks among the top globally. For example, the UN recorded more enforced 'disappearances' from Sri Lanka in 2006 and 2007 than from any other country in the world, according to Human Rights Watch. Given the tendency towards centralization of power in the hands of a small coterie, centered around Rajapakse and his brothers who hold powerful portfolios, it may be too optimistic to expect that things will change anytime soon.

A final problem is the apparent lack of leverage or interest on the part of the international community. The international community has made very few, if any, demands on the Sri Lankan government, in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE, and in the process leading upto the recent elections. There were issues which could have been legitimately taken up - such as the status of the Tamil displaced people or the lack of a free and fair climate for elections - more forcefully, but were not. This reveals the stark reality that most of the rest of the world has moved on as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, to the next global headline, such as Haiti or Yemen. In this climate, Rajapakse may interpret the current electoral victory as a license to do as he pleases.

It is hard to be optimistic after these elections. A real opportunity for peace existed after the defeat of the murderous Tamil Tigers, but with this election, it may have made the path ahead more difficult. Whatever levers of change exist to move Sri Lanka in the right direction, they need to come from within Sri Lanka's own civil society, which has itself been under attack in the current climate of repression and violence. The hope for Sri Lanka and the rest of the world rest more on that possibility.